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PR pros dispel the wining-and-dining myth

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST – In the 1956 movie, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” the character played by Gregory Peck is struggling to realize the American Dream. As he searches for a suitable career, he is advised to go into public relations “because all they do is take people to lunch.” It`s possible that line helped perpetuate the idea of those in that line of work as back slapping, glad handlers who spend much of their time socializing.

Asked about the wining-and-dining PR myth, Martha Duvall, communications/public relations coordinator for the United Way of Jackson and George counties, laughed.

“I haven`t seen any wining-and-dining around here,” she said. “In a non-profit organization, we wear many hats and do a little bit of everything.”

Professional public relations organizations list more than half of their members as working for non-profits, which includes charities, museums, schools and governmental entities – organizations not likely to have large entertaining budgets.

Duvall, who`s been with United Way six years, says she does whatever it takes to get the job done. That may include loading boxes of donated items in her car now that she is responsible for the gifts-in-kind program. Prior to joining United Way, she was with the Gulf Coast YMCA and the Walter Anderson Art Museum.

At United Way, she handles media relations and works with the volunteers who serve on the communications committee, member agencies and other human and healthcare agencies. United Way raised over $1.2 million in their most recent annual campaign.

“When you work for a nonprofit, you do it because you’re passionate about that cause,” she said. “There`s something to be said for getting up and going to work every day at a job you love and where you can see results in the community.”

Duvall, who has a degree in communications and psychology from the University of South Alabama, added, “We are proud to be good stewards of the funds we receive and there`s definitely no entertaining money in

the budget.”

Vincent Creel, public affairs manager for the City of Biloxi, likewise has no entertaining budget.

“I don`t even like to call my job public relations because people think country club golf and going to lunch,” he said. “I don`t like the term PR because it conjures up all those back-slapping images.”

Creel, who was a journalist with The Sun Herald and worked for a casino before joining the city, says his role is to tell the taxpayers what the city is doing with their money. He does that in a number of ways – through the media, direct mail, e-mail, Web site and speaking engagements.

“I serve two audiences on a daily basis,” he said. “In some cases, my role is to advocate the city`s position to the media. In other cases, my role is to be an advocate of the media, whether it`s setting up interviews for them, finding information they need or whatever other way I need to help them do their job.”

He says the end result is all part of helping tell the taxpayers what the city is doing with their money. He feels that a public relations professional must be accessible and cultivate relationships with the media to be successful and effective.

“To be effective, you have to get the message across and ask yourself if you communicated. A good public affairs person must be a reporter for the organization they work for,” he said.

At Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, Christian Reece does have some leeway for entertaining although she says things are not always the way they seem.

The public relations and advertising manager there for the past 10 years, she said, “We do not have a big budget for entertaining because we take guests to eat at restaurants inside the casino. The entertaining we do is helpful and I see it as networking.”

Reece, who previously worked for Ochsner Medical Center and the Girl Scout Council of Louisiana in New Orleans, finds a lot of variety working for a casino. While it may seem glamorous to escort one of the casino`s celebrity entertainers to the stage, she might have been at the concert door tearing tickets minutes earlier. Or prior to kicking off a press conference, she might have been on the floor stuffing press kits or setting up chairs – whatever legwork it takes to get the job done.

She feels she is always a reflection of Casino Magic and is often involved in community relations projects. She has served as the casino`s representative at area functions and on boards such as the Chamber of Commerce.

Although she has a staff of four people, Reece describes herself as a working manager.

“I don`t have the liberty of delegating everything. I also serve as writer, spokesperson, adjunct media buyer and handle crises situations like hurricane closures,” she said.

A public relations veteran, Rex Kelly has been in the business 32 years. He has been with Mississippi Power for 20 of those years and currently serves as director of corporate communications. That position entails a wide range of responsibilities including media relations, advertising, creative services, internal communications, community affairs and others.

He feels that, generally speaking, the reputation of the PR field is better today than it was traditionally.

“Like all endeavors, it has a varied reputation depending on the people you know in the business and their level of knowledge,” he said. “The perception of `simply being good with people’ that entails a lot of wining-and-dining is not real.”

Kelly points out that businesses and corporations are facing stiffer competition and greater scrutiny. How that company is perceived in the marketplace is increasingly important and PR practitioners must meet that challenge.

Communication, he adds, is still the core and credibility is significant. He says those who are effective in PR know and understand about communication and credibility.

“Credibility is more important than taking someone to lunch,” he said. “Entertaining is not the core and it probably never was. There`s really not a whole lot of time for that.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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